When the sun sets, Londoners take to the streets to spend cash, or earn it. For one night, Jon Day and Dougie Wallace followed the money
In east London, the night is warming up. Cars with tinted windows cruise slowly by. Dealers lean out to ask if you need anything. They hand over business cards before speeding off.
Outside Liverpool Street station the crowds swirl. Men in tight white shirts, with arms like polished walnuts, are on the prowl. Gaggles of hen-dos totter down the escalators before heading home.
A rough sleeper named Dean is asking for change for a hostel. “You can have a fag”, a man in a camel-hair coat offers, “but I’ve got no change.” “That’s alright, I take notes too,” Dean says.
In the 24-hour bagel shop on Brick Lane, trade is brisk. George, a taxi driver, is drinking coffee while waiting to start his shift. He likes to work nights, he says, because the roads are quieter and the passengers don’t talk as much.
Farther east, in Hoxton, the queues lengthen outside clubs. A man walks down the street calling out “balloons, balloons, balloons”. He’s selling laughing gas: £5 for one or three for a tenner. Trade is slow – “it’s too cold tonight” he says. The hiss of inflating balloons cuts through the evening air, and empty silver capsules sparkle in the gutter.
The Central Line, 12.00am
At Bethnal Green station the shifts are changing over. Underground workers wearing orange jackets walk down to the tracks to start the night maintenance work. In the ticket office staff pull down the blinds, shut up shop.
On a Central Line train heading west people sit staring at their phones as they’re rattled along the tracks. No one speaks. At Bank a woman clasping a Gucci handbag and a bottle of champagne gets on. A sleeping man stirs as she sits down next to him, but the rolling carriage soon rocks him back to sleep.
Across the aisle a woman with precise nails, lacquered white and puce, fingers her hair. As her station approaches she begins, expertly and stealthily, to roll a spliff in the secrecy of her bag. She holds a cigarette paper between her lips, a cardboard roach between her fingers, discards small bits of twig and seed on the floor. The smell of cannabis fills the carriage, but no one acknowledges it. At Holborn she gets up from her seat, her work complete, and leaves the train.
In the West End polished people queue for clubs. They wear tight jeans and box-fresh trainers. Outside the Toy Room, on Argyll Street, a bouncer patrols the line, making sure rough sleepers don’t harass his clients.
Round the corner on Rathbone Place men wait to enter the Sweatbox, a gym and sauna. A beggar wearing a Spiderman cap and carrying a large rucksack, his sleeping bag slung over his shoulder like a bandoleer, asks for change. He is ignored. It’s been a shit night, he says. He just wants to find a bed. Outside Nando’s on Greek Street a rough sleeper is passed out on top of two mattresses. He coughs in his sleep.
In Covent Garden the restaurants are shutting for the evening. Waiters in black aprons dump bulging bags of empty bottles on the pavements, or share a glass of wine before heading home. One delicately covers a jamón in the window with a cloth, as though performing a conjuring trick.
Berwick Street, 12.50am
Round the corner, on Berwick Street, Tony is sweeping up litter. He’s been a street cleaner for 21 years, he says, and has always worked in the West End. He mostly works nights because it pays better.
Tony used to work in the fashion industry, supplying cloth to Soho dressmakers, but when he became a father he decided he needed a regular income. He likes the work. He likes the emptiness of the streets at night, especially after the pubs have shut.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from my job,” he says. “You see everything and say nothing.”
The area has changed a lot in the last decade. Many of the small bars and clubs have shut, the council has clamped down on street drinking, the punters have become more homogenous. It’s less interesting.
“The kids stay in their local areas,” Tony says. “Soho has got quieter. It’s more of a rich person’s area now. But the rubbish has stayed the same.”
Leicester Square, 1.15am
In Chinatown the cycle rickshaw drivers gather in a coven, hustling for rides. Their trikes are covered in neon lights and music blares from hidden sound-systems.
“Do you know where you want to go?” they ask the passing crowds, “Looking for a club? Looking for a girl?”
Miguel has been on the circuit for six years. “There’s no money in actually cycling people around,” he says. “The only way to make anything is with commissions, from clubs, from strip clubs. But they’re all dying. The Windmill closed last week! No one goes out round here any more – there’s too much hassle, too many paparazzi. The really rich people just go abroad for the weekend.”
Now much of the nightlife happens outside the clubs, on the streets. Near Tottenham Court Road smokers huddle together on a fenced-off area of pavement, like sheep in a pen. Some smoke or top up their vape pens from little bottles. Others use the opportunity to cool off in the night air, to have conversations or to flirt. A bouncer spots us taking photographs of her patrons and chases us off: a concerned shepherd looking after her flock.
Mohammed, a bus driver, is trying to wake one of his passengers. He claps loudly over the sleeping man’s head, shakes him gently by the shoulder.
“I think he’s probably pretending to be asleep,” he says. “They do sometimes. I won’t try too hard. I feel sorry for them. It’s cold out there now. People should look after them – I just let them ride the bus all night if they want.”
Mohammed has been driving the same route – the N27, which runs from Turnham Green to Chalk Farm – for nearly 30 years.
“It’s quieter now,” he says, “especially on Friday and Saturday nights, because of the 24-hour tube. And people don’t talk to each other as much. They’re all on their phones.”
He drives a sleek double decker, but doesn’t like the new buses. He misses the old Routemaster: he liked the noise it made and the fact that people could jump on and off it, and that sometimes they fell off.
A fox runs across the road by Red Lion Square. It is bright orange under the sodium streetlights.